It is a long way from anywhere as I sit uncomfortably in my cramped seat en route to Inle Lake from Bago Myanmar. It’s three in the morning, I am exhausted, my body is aching and I have been either riding a bus or waiting to board one for the past 19 hours. This lake had better be as “remarkably beautiful” as all of the guide books tell us because it is the most difficult traveling I have done in five months.
It is water festival time, the hottest time of the year, and everyone in the country is taking the bus to visit relatives and to see the sights for themselves. We arrive in Bago, a town situated 80 km northeast of Yangon via Kyiakito in early afternoon to book our overnight bus to Inle Lake. The tour operator eagerly takes our money, but fails to let us know that it is next to impossible to secure a seat during this busy season on such short notice. As the hours tick by, we wait impatiently for a spot to become available, our desperate proprietor flagged every coach that passed through this dusty town down until finally a driver agreed to take us.
It was an embarrassing experience as we boarded the bus. People were kicked out of their seats to make room for us. Not speaking their language, our protests fell on deaf ears. We didn’t want to make people sit on the floor for us, but there was nothing we could do about it, and we were shown to our designated spots.
The next 10 hours consisted of very loud variety shows a la “Laugh In” that I couldn’t understand one word of, a bus so packed with luggage, that I was forced to stuff my 70L Backpack under my feet and temperatures so hot that it was difficult to breathe. Just as I was drifting off to the glorious escape of sleep, we stopped at one in the morning for dinner. Who eats in the middle of the night? But sure enough, everyone disembarked and ordered full meals from the roadside food stand. We ended up staying at this lively stop for much longer than expected as our bus was under repair and wasn’t going anywhere soon.
I had the chance to witness quite the spectacle though.
It is very late at night and children are running around playing, music is blaring, several food stalls are busy cooking up food and a market is open to sell vegetables and fruit. This place is thriving as it makes its living off of the overnight buses that stop here full of people ready to spend money.
Eventually we were on our way, and once we settled into our seats the variety show was turned up to “11” for all to enjoy. Somehow, I managed to fall asleep again, but at 5:00 am I was awakened to blaring prayers over the loudspeaker. Nobody seemed to mind, so I sat in my seat and watched the scenery. We passed Ox carts full of produce for the market, horse carts taking people off to town, water buffalo and children walking to school until the driver stopped the bus to tell us that this was our stop.
We were let off on the side of the road and the rest of the bus headed on to Mandalay. Negotiations were to begin again for a pick up truck to the lake. We never did find one, but we managed to hop onto an over packed minivan where I was to spend the next eight hours in 45 degree weather with no relief from the heat. 5000 Kyat ($6 US) bought me a seat on the engine with a thin straw pad to sit on. Four of us were crammed in the front of the van. A driver who never stopped smoking, a young monk squished between the driver and myself and my husband who was wedged between the door and me.
31 hours after leaving our initial destination, we made it to Inle Lake, where we took the first guesthouse that we could find and quickly retired for the rest of the day.
I wouldn’t know if Inle Lake was as beautiful as the guidebooks say, we were in Myanmar at the hottest driest time of the year, but for our stay at the lake it was cold, rainy and overcast. We never experienced that breathtaking panoramic view. But like everywhere that we visited in this country, the people made the experience. They were warm and friendly and we were even invited to a private home for tea and conversation. At a temple on the lake named Jumping Cat Monastery, a group of people were so enthralled with us, that the tables were turned and we were the attraction. People took turns having their pictures taken with us and we shared a laugh as we gave a thumb’s up to the camera. Sunglass clad monks gave a peace sign and summer vacationers put their arms around us to pose for pictures. When Dave showed people the pictures on his digital camera, everyone went wild, wanting him to take more.
As to whether or not Inlay Lake was worth the bus trip from hell? Of course it was. I experienced pure hospitality, I had the rare opportunity to see the Intha Leg Rowers, famous for their unique way of propelling their boat with one leg wrapped around their oar. I visited a monastery full of cats who have been trained by monks to jump through hoops and I was privileged enough to interact with a people who have been isolated from the outside world for so long.